Essential Earth Colours for Art

Earth colours are defined by their inclusion of all three primary colours red, yellow and blue. Some earth colours are warmer than others because they possess more red than blue and vice versa. But does the artist really need all the earth colours available in oils and acrylics?

My movie clip showing tips on mixing brown. Includes speed art on painting a brown object with a limited palette.

Cool Earth Colours

Earth Colours in Painting

The artist does not have to look far to find an array of earth colours in oils, acrylics and alkyds. To name a few, there is yellow ochre, raw sienna, Vandyke brown and burnt umber. Earth colours are defined by their inherent ‘brownness’. In theory, earth colours are not really vital on the palette as they can be mixed via various ratios of red, yellow and blue. But including certain earth colours in the paint collection is handy as time is saved from mixing the same earth colour from scratch. However, I believe some earth colours are more important than others. But firstly, let’s look at the types of earth colours the artist can use.

Brown Pigments in Paint

Burnt umber on the other hand is a cool earth colour with good covering strength. When partnered with pthalo blue or ultramarine and a little permanent rose, brings about rich darks, much preferable to a layer of ready-mixed black such as lamp black. Other earth colours worth exploring are Venetian red and Indian red, both with remarkable tinting strength and power. Vandyke brown and sepia resembles the colour of old photographs and might be useful for emulating aged effects or monochrome.

Dull Earth Colours

I find many earth colours unnecessary in painting and feel that raw umber and yellow ochre overrated regarding hue. Davy’s grey, Payne’s grey and brown madder are rather dull and overuse could result in flat, dull colours. It might be preferable to mix varying ratios of burnt sienna, burnt umber, ultramarine, pthalo blue, permanent rose (with varying amounts of white) a better choice for expressing a glowering scene with browns and blacks or monochrome. Such colours when mixed in varying ratios will produce more interesting browns, greys and blacks than lots of pre-mixed earth colours on the painting.

Browns and Blacks in Painting

Mix permanent rose and burnt umber and a rich, dark brown will result. Mix burnt sienna with ultramarine and an array of brown-neutrals can be produced. In fact, a surprising few pigments are required to create a multitude of interesting browns, neutrals, blacks and greys. Experimenting with varying ratios of a few essential pigments will help the artist understand colour theory and colour behaviour better than if using lots of earth pigments during painting practice.

Take a look at any earth colour (or brown pigment) and it can be seen it will be biased towards blue, red or yellow. Further, some pigments are more transparent than others by its nature and therefore would be useful for glazing techniques (the application of a thin layer of paint). Other earth colours are more opaque and are therefore handy for alla prima applications. Still, care is needed that not too many earth colours are used or the painting could end up looking dull and murky (unless this is the intention).

Yellow Ochre and Burnt Sienna

Certain earth colours are rather yellowish in bias, such as yellow ochre and raw sienna. Others are reddish, such as burnt sienna and light red. Bluish earth colours include burnt umber and raw umber. I personally find burnt sienna and burnt umber a great inclusion in my oil painting collection as both oppose the other in nature. Burnt sienna is a rather transparent, warm earth colour, great for mixing skin tones, terracotta and sunlight. But it also provides perfect shadow colours when mixed with ultramarine or pthalo blue.

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